After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
—Matthew 2:1-12, NIV
This is the only place in the entire New Testament where you can find the Star of Bethlehem.
The account of the ‘star of Bethlehem’ in Matthew 2:1-12 is a factual account without mythical or imaginary content.
No one saw the star but the wise men
There is no indication in the text that any other person actually saw the star. The shepherds in the field did not see the star, Herod did not see the star, Mary and Joseph did not see the star, and there is no contemporary record of a big star. Mark, Luke, and John do not record a big star. Astronomers running their planetariums backwards through time are not unanimous about it, and scholars trying to date the birth of Christ with its appearance have been confounded. Possible candidates for the star simply do not match the gospel’s chronology and dating. The reason for this is that Matthew never alleged a conspicuous star.
The wise men were professional astrologers
Ancient astrologers had a double role in society. They were responsible for observing and charting stars and using this information to regulate the calendar, which was of great utility to agriculture. Because agriculture affected the welfare of the nation, astrologers tried to extend their skills to the other aspects of national welfare, and the divination aspect of astrology was born. Today, astronomers perform the practical part of ancient astrology, and modern astrologers are totally dedicated to divination—in fact, modern astrologers make no observations of the sky at all, but rely on an ephemeris prepared by astronomers. Ancient astrologers restricted their divination to nations and kings, as the modern practice of casting individual horoscopes for ordinary folks did not yet exist.
Ancient astrologers were concerned not only with astronomical phenomena and the regulation of the calendar, but also with the meaning that could be derived from the position of the zodiac, the motion of the planets and comets, and the phases of the moon. Thus the ‘star of Bethlehem’ seen by the wise men was most likely a mundane star which rose at a significant time, or a planet (planets were considered stars by the ancients) that appeared in what was for them a significant constellation at a significant time. This is borne out by Matthew, who describes a phenomenon observed only by astrologers and no one else.
Because astrology involved divination, it was forbidden to the Jews. (Divination, being a consultation with higher powers which are not God, implies an erosion of monotheism.) The Jewish calendar was regulated by the temple priests.
The wise men traveled west to follow the star in the east
The wise men saw the star in the east, and came to Judea from the east. This means they traveled west, away from the star to follow it. This can only mean that they followed the meaning of the star. (While it is true that all stars rise in the east and set in the west, the star the astrologers saw must have risen and set several times during their journey, which scarcely could have been completed in a single night. Thus traveling west would have constituted following all the stars, not a particular star.) No astronomical phenomenon would have been specific enough to lead the astrologers to a stable in Bethlehem. Matthew’s text clearly contradicts the modern notion of a celestial homing beacon, leading them to Bethlehem.
Even though the star guided them, they stopped for directions!
This appears to be an inconsistency: If they were following a moving star which guided them providentially to Bethlehem, why did they stop for directions? This is precisely why they stopped in at Herod’s place: to ask the location of the new king’s birthplace. (Who better to ask about the next king, than the current king?) But if they followed the significance of the star rather than a physically moving star, this makes sense. When we speak of Jesus’ followers, we do not mean that they walked single file behind Him everywhere He went, we mean that they adhered to His teachings. Why must we associate such a literal meaning to ‘following the star’? Aside from the influence from certain Christmas carols and greeting cards, there is no reason to do so.
From their observations of the sky and from their system of astrology, the astrologers knew that a king was to be born in Judea; they had no more specific information than that. Therefore, they had to stop and ask for directions so that they could continue to ‘follow’ the meaning of the star.
Another possible interpretation is that they weren’t seeking directions after all. Perhaps they were not expecting any special sort of king to be born and inquired at Herod’s palace because they thought that Herod had a new son.
Herod did not ask the astrologers to explain the star
Since the ancients were prone to panic at the appearance of unusual celestial phenomena, we should expect Herod, confronted by a strange star and the simultaneous fortuitous appearance of eastern astrologers, to inquire as to the meaning of the star hanging ominously above his head. Instead, he wonders why the astrologers have come. Herod knew nothing of the star until the astrologers mentioned it! This means that the star of Bethlehem was apparent only to professional astrologers, because its significance was more striking than its appearance. It also explains why modern astronomers cannot find it.
Herod’s reaction to their explanation was normal and consistent with the age. Astrologers were only involved in the fate of nations and kings; so he feared a rival and plotted preventive measures.
There is no scriptural evidence for a gigantic celestial homing beacon. However, such a ‘star of Bethlehem’ is very picturesque and it makes very pretty greeting cards and inspires lovely lyrics for fanciful Christmas songs. The unbiblical klieg light of Bethlehem will shine unabated in modern myth. It does not shine in the New Testament.
What really happened
Matthew presents us with the following account: Some professional astrologers saw some planet in some constellation at a particular time, and this combination of events was significant to them. They deduced that a king was to be born in Judea, so they headed west. When they arrived in Judea, they needed to ask directions, so they rather sensibly came upon the idea that the current king might know something about his successor. They were wrong, as it turned out. Herod knew nothing of a successor, but probably babbled out the common theory that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem before his paranoia took over and caused him to suspect that the astrologers had spilled the beans about a rebellion. The astrologers went to Bethlehem, came upon Jesus, and paid homage to Him. Certainly the loquacious wise men must have told Mary and Joseph about their trip, including the incident with Herod, since one of the primary functions of travelers was to spread news. Later that night, Joseph mulled over events, and drew conclusions about Herod’s probable reaction to the astrologers. He realized that Herod would take the astrologers seriously and would act to purge his kingdom of potential rivals, real or imaginary. These conclusions took the form of a dream, warning him to get out of town. Fortunately, he followed the advice of the dream.
Stripped of modern romantic embellishments, there is no reason why the event could not be a flat factual account. In our modern times, we would call this a set of heart-warming, believable and edifying coincidences. Matthew probably meant it that way too, since it is inconsistent with Matthew or any of the other New Testament writers (still heavily tinged with Judaism) to ascribe authority to a system of divination like astrology.
Matthew’s gospel could only have found its way into the New Testament canon if this account were generally accepted as an historical anecdote about a marvelous, heart-warming and providential coincidence; otherwise it would have caused considerable controversy. The controversy about astrology in Matthew is conspicuous by its absence.